It turns out Matthew Broderick makes a great wisecracking medieval thief. Who knew?
I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Richard Donner, a talented director perhaps best-known today for his excellent Lethal Weapon films. Looking back over his filmography, which includes The Omen and Superman: The Movie (Christopher Reeve’s first appearance in the role), I realized I had never seen 1985’s Ladyhawke. Being a fervent admirer of both Donner and Rutger Hauer, who stars in the film as mysterious medieval knight, I pronounced this oversight a travesty and watched the film immediately.
The result was that rarest of desires in an era of never-ending sequels, reboots and remakes: I want a Ladyhawke remake.
A rare bird
As a medieval fantasy, the film occupies an expansive genre that, unlike most genres, has few consistent tropes. These films can be strikingly (and off-puttingly) modern, as in Nicholas Cage’s Season of the Witch, which feels more like an episode of Supernatural than a medieval epic. On the other hand, The Green Knight, David Lowery’s hotly anticipated adaptation of the old Arthurian tale, looks like it will opt for an approach verging on the psychedelic (à la Valhalla Rising). So it’s no surprise that Ladyhawke has a few novel elements of its own to offer.
The story initially revolves around the thief Gaston (Matthew Broderick), who, in the opening minutes of the film, becomes the first prisoner ever to escape from a supposedly airtight dungeon in medieval Italy. Oddly, the reality of the dungeon does not seem to match its legend. Gaston escapes down a sewer grate—is he the first prisoner in the history of the dungeon to be small enough to fit?
But no matter; such things are soon forgotten. As Gaston makes his escape, he maintains a more or less constant conversation with God that continues for the rest of the film—though he seems to view the relationship as an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of deal. The humor derived from Gaston’s asides, which alternately thank God for a perceived miracle, scold Him for sending mixed messages, and casually rationalize questionable behavior, are one of the film’s pleasures. His sliding scale of devoutness feels like a fresh but period-faithful take on a character that would otherwise be mostly forgettable.
Why forgettable? Because when Rutger Hauer arrives, he steals the show. Hauer is Navarre, a former Captain in the guard of the corrupt Bishop of Aquila, and you haven’t known cool until you’ve seen him peering out from beneath a black hooded cloak atop a sleek black horse, his faithful hawk (hawke?) perched on his arm.
Navarre recruits Gaston to lead him straight back into the lion’s den of Aquila. He aims to sneak in and kill the Bishop, who has plagued the Captain and his lover with a sadistic curse.
Now, anyone with half a brain will have figured out the nature of the curse relatively quickly, not least because of the film’s title and numerous hints throughout the first hour. But the film waits until close to the halfway point to finally reveal that Navarre transforms into a black wolf each night, while his lover, Isabeau, transforms into the titular hawk during the day. Consequently, the two are “always together, eternally apart,” a twisted punishment bestowed by the Bishop as vengeance for his inability to win Isabeau’s love.
This is a fascinating premise—unfortunately, Donner and the film’s three(!) writers don’t quite know what to do with it. The Bishop is not so much a character as a tall, sneering mass. Why, exactly, is he a Bishop? It seems a fitting title for a medieval villain, but nothing about the character or the narrative leans into that role in any substantial way. There is something of an inversion of morality in Gaston—a man of questionable morals and situational devoutness—ultimately winning out over the “divinely anointed” Bishop. But this feels like a relic of a previous script draft that probably had more complicated themes of religion and morality, and it’s Navarre, not Gaston, who ultimately defeats the Bishop and shatters the curse.
They’re animals in the sheets
For the human-to-wolf and human-to-hawk transformations, Donner wisely chooses to avoid directly showing the change with some kind of terrible 80’s special effect, but his solution is almost as bad. The same close-up, slow-motion footage of a hawk—which looks like it was filmed in the dark with a smoke machine and a clearly visible spotlight (ahem…the sun) in the background—is first used in the opening credits, and then again and again each time Isabeau transforms. Needless to say, it starts to feel copy-and-pasted after the second, third, and fourth times.
Donner’s goal with this approach is two-fold: first, he wants to create ethereal, dreamlike transformation sequences that represent the sort of “mystical femininity” (perhaps a dated concept) that Isabeau embodies. Unfortunately, the repetitive footage feels out of place each time. For Navarre’s transformations, Donner resorts to a more subtle, grounded form of visual trickery, which works better. Only once—when Isabeau’s eyes shift from human to hawk in a hauntingly tragic close-up shot—does a transformation scene reach the poetic heights Donner was striving for.
Secondly, Ladyhawke is a fantasy film in which magic is conspicuously absent. Yes, Navarre and Isabeau are cursed, but there is no hook-nosed witch to be found, and the curse is framed in explicitly religious terms (the Bishop, a Christian authority, called upon Satan to create the curse) rather than in the more mystical terms that are most common in fantasy films. There are no sorcerers, no wands, no beams of magic light. No one is flung across a room at the wave of a hand or the flick of a wrist. Rather than drowning the film’s magic in visual flair, Donner seeks to ground the magic as much as possible in the real world. After all, Ladyhawke isn’t about magic; it’s about love.
Once more, this is a commendable approach that sets the film apart from its peers, and it partly explains—but does not excuse—why the Bishop is such a mundane, ordinary character. It also explains why our heroes’ wild animal counterparts are not humans in animal bodies, but are in fact the animals they appear to be. The black wolf and hawk retain instinctual attachments to friends and wariness of foes, but they do not communicate meaningfully with anyone, and memories are not shared between forms.
In one scene in which the wolf falls through some ice and nearly drowns, he scrambles about indiscriminately, as any wolf would do, and nearly turns Gaston’s chest into ribbons before the rescue is successful. Later, Navarre is appalled when he sees the damage he inflicted as a wolf. The scene feels like an outlier, a dead stop in a story that was just beginning to build some pace. The scene does serve to build the necessary trust between Navarre and Gaston, but one imagines this could have been accomplished more efficiently.
Still, I like the scene because it feels like another holdover from a more complicated film, one that more deeply explored themes that only briefly surface in the final story. Where does beauty end and tragedy begin in Navarre’s and Isabeau’s wolf and hawk forms? Each gets only a single moment to fully express the depths of their pain: Isabeau, when asked who she is, responds, “I am sorrow.” We believe her. Navarre, upon seeing Isabeau transform just before he is able to touch her, unleashes a scream so profoundly soulful that we feel, in that moment, the wound left on his heart each time the lovers play out their tragic cycle. But there is more to mine. Do the hawk and wolf contain a semblance of morality? What does the answer to that question tell us about human morality? And, most importantly, does love transcend physical form?
These are depths that could be plumbed in a modern remake, and a combination of practical effects and CG trickery could preserve the grounded atmosphere while improving the cheap, dated look of the film’s transformation sequences. Whether such a film would do any of these things is, of course, an open question.
Finally, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the soundtrack, which consists of funky 80’s synth rock thrown up against a few random bits of traditional orchestral score. Now, I’m a fan of funky 80’s synth rock, but while the novelty is interesting initially, it quickly becomes irritating over the course of this two-hour film. To be clear, I’m not talking about a fully developed score that ebbs and flows with the highs and lows of the story. No, this funky 80’s synth rock is played in tiny little chunks whenever something exciting is happening on screen. The chunks are too small to develop into anything interesting, but substantial enough to take most audiences out of the film.
Almost as distracting are the more traditional chunks of score, given that it seems entirely random whether you’ll get funky 80’s synth pop or some violins at any given moment. It’s not the medieval setting that makes the soundtrack inappropriate—I mean, 1927’s Metropolis has a disco edit, and it’s groovy. But Ladyhawke’s soundtrack doesn’t match the action or the story at all. It’s as if Donner was listening to some funky 80’s synth pop while he was filming and thought, why don’t I shove some of that in there? It turns out, by the way, that that’s exactly what happened.
Anyway, I’ll stop speaking ill of the dead. Ladyhawke, despite its flaws, is an enjoyable watch. Fantasy fans will enjoy the magical twist; those who don’t usually enjoy fantasy will appreciate the film’s grounded approach. Young men can find in Navarre a non-toxic male role model guided by his love for Isabeau.
Donner deserves praise for choosing the path least traveled for several of the film’s most interesting elements, even if the paths don’t always lead where he hoped they would. So when you’re reading through the obituary articles this week and keep seeing Lethal Weapon and Superman highlighted as Donner’s top credits, spare a thought for Ladyhawke.
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